Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on "Out of the Past"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Even though “Out of the Past” (1947) seemed to borrow heavily from earlier film noirs, it also managed to introduce a new idea or two.

In the previous noirs we’ve seen in class, for example, “The Killers,” the femme fatale was a mysterious temptress. The audience suspects she’s no good, but the protagonist is drawn into the underworld by her “siren’s call” and never returns. In these films, the protagonist’s mistake is thinking with his heart (or loins) rather than his brain. However, in “Out of the Past,” the protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is all too aware that femme fatale, Katie Moffat (Jane Greer), is all bad. His undoing isn’t that he falls for her again, it is that he is too over confident in his ability to turn the tables on her. He thinks that simply because he is invulnerable to Moffat’s sexual advances that he will be able to foil the machinations of the evil-doers. Unfortunately, this is not the case because, like any good villain, Moffat and Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) have many other tricks up their sleeves.

Another thing that was different about this film was that it wasn’t always focused on the city. In fact, the camera often paused for a moment on a shot of lush mountains or forests. Rather than just presenting the city as a corrupter, this film also presents to us the idea that the country is a safe haven. When we first meet Markham’s character, he is enjoying the day at a lake. When Markham is hiding from the police, he hides near a river. Finally, when Markham sets up a meeting with his girlfriend, Ann Miller, it is in a forest.

This film was about half exposition since it told the whole story of Markham and Moffat’s first encounter and romance. Ultimately, the problem with this movie was that since this first story was so long, it competed for screen time with the second story, which was Markham’s return to the underworld. The second story was, at the same time, more complicated and less interesting than the first. Was this a film about how Markham was doomed by his past? If this is the case, then the exposition could have been much shorter.

I don’t really know what, but there was something about Sterling’s character that was really great. Maybe it was simply that Douglas had great timing. My favorite line in the movie is when Sterling insults his henchman’s intelligence by saying he, “ couldn’t find a prayer in the bible.” Also fun is how Markham constantly insults Moffat. My favorite was, “you’re like a leaf that gets blown from one gutter to the next.”

I found the plot of the film to be very confusing at times. For instance, a new character, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), was introduced in the middle of the movie and then never seen again. Also, when Markham hid the important papers in a mail storage of some sort, just like Bogart did in “The Maltese Falcon,” Sterling’s henchmen picked Markham up right outside the place. Am I supposed to believe that these guys can’t put two and two together and realize that he must have just dropped off the papers?

This film was successful because I cared about Markham’s character. In fact, I wanted to scream at the screen whenever he kissed Moffat because I knew she was no good for anybody. I thought that Markham would prevail in the end. However, upon deeper reflection, I realized that throughout the film, Markham is over-confident and in control. If he triumphed in the end, this movie’s tone wouldn’t have been film noir at all, because there must be an element of helplessness; fate must play a large role.

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  1. These have been interesting, John, but I haven't seen the vast majority of these films, which makes it hard to comment. :)

  2. Unfortunately, I don't own all of these either. You might consider asking for some of them for Christmas. :)